in: Reviews

January 26, 2018

BSO Both Buttoned-Up and Unzipped

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Augustin Hadelich and Thomas Ades (Robert Torres photo)

The outcomes were not all ideal, but one felt grateful Thursday for having heard the BSO venture somethings risky with Artistic Partner Thomas Adès and violinist Augustin Hadelich.

Adès’s reading of the Eighth Symphony of Beethoven, hardly risky repertoire, made a point of going against the emotional grain of the music, or at least going against the prevailing attitude concerning it. Beethoven famously used the word aufgeknöpft, “unbuttoned”, to describe the character and humorousness of the symphony. In Adès’ hands, however, the humor was decidedly deadpan. On a scale of Bob Newhart to Sam Kinison, this performance was much closer to the buttoned-down than the boisterous. Tempos were brisk, phrases were clipped. He paid meticulous attention to dynamics, and placed the sforzandi so precisely that once could visualize the score markings as the music went by. He indulged in very little rubato, even where Beethoven invites it, apart from a few odd moments in the finale. Adès threw cues around with firm abandon, cues certainly unnecessary for such a familiar work, but the players seeemd to share the conductor’s evident pleasure, and executed with precision and polish—engaging, but also a bit unsettling withal.

Ligeti’s Violin Concerto may need to be seen to be believed. On CD, it always struck me as more a compendium than a concerto, a five-movement work stuffed with the composer’s various obsessions: alternative tunings, microscopic gestures, folk music, passacaglias. To be sure, it is not a traditional concerto. But in person, with the astonishing Augustin Hadelich as soloist, something like a concerto dynamic becomes visible. Unlike a traditional concerto, the violin here only rarely struts before the orchestra. Instead, we focus on the violinist, whose material and perspective orient the listener to the notes whirling around. This visual, dramatic element supports the theatricality of the form, even though much of the violin’s writing is textural, blending into the orchestra while remaining distinct.

Rhetorical gestures, like the extended stratospheric high notes in slow fourth movement passacaglia, which hover over the orchestra, carry more weight when they are being executed before our eyes. The way the violin wanders into and out of the orchestral fabric is easier to track when one can match the violinist’s movements to the sometimes half-hidden sound he is creating. The entire piece has a haze of tension over it: overtly so in the first movement, where a cloud of string figures, blurred by unusual tunings, has notes stabbed out of it to create a melody, that then immediately transforms itself. Some rest comes in the second movement, where the violin sings a long, relatively simple melody, but that melody fragments and scatters within the orchestra, before being supplanted by an uncanny chorale of ocarinas—an acoustic coup almost as striking as the posthorn interludes in last week’s Mahler Third. Tension accumulates throughout and finds its release in the final movement, which refracts much of the previous musical material as if through crazed glass before the orchestra steps aside and the violinist takes the cadenza. I have had the pleasure of hearing Hadelich multiple times now, and that pleasure increases with each new encounter. Despite being possessed of almost unearthly technique, he does not strive to draw attention to himself. However, when needed, he can make music of Promethean depth and insight. Ligeti permits performers to substitute their own cadenzas. Hadelich instead brings us the U.S. premiere of a cadenza written by Adès that is an eye-popping, phantasmagorial, high-speed synthesis of all that has come before. The original, attributed to Ligeti and the piece’s commissioner, Saschko Gawriloff, is virtuosic in the extreme; but Adès ratchets up the level of  difficulty to almost unbearable levels. The writing is breathless, back-breakingly athletic, relentless. Hadelich’s performance hid none of the difficulty through any sense of struggle on his part. Instead, he clearly expressed every sharp turn, every insane efflorescence of notes. Half genius and half nervous breakdown, it brought most of the audience immediately to their feet at the end of the work. Hadelich’s encored with Paganini’s 21stCaprice. Although dauntingly difficult, its virtuosity is primarily melodic. In the bursts of passagework the artist found microscopically detailed filigree, not fireworks.  After what had just preceded, it came over us as a balm.

If Adès’ Beethoven wasn’t unbuttoned, his reading of his an instrumental suite drawn from his opera Powder Her Face certainly was. Or perhaps “unzipped” is a better term, given the raciness of the material used in the opera, which famously has a long, hummed aria sung as a sexual act is depicted on stage. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Powder Her Face performed, and the Suite is a welcome addition. The music is packed so tight with allusion, and the material is so constantly stretched, distorted and transformed, that one cannot really attend to the orchestra while also listening to the voices. The original scoring for the opera required 15 instrumentalists. For the Suite, which was commissioned by no fewer than six major organizations (five orchestras and Carnegie Hall), Adès enlarged the forces dramatically: the orchestra barely fit on the stage, and the battery of percussion was intimidating. The Suite is in eight movements; most of the musical material appears as fragments of popular-sounding music, mostly from the 30s and 40s, but it is almost never delivered straight. The opening movement, Overture, presents a tango (openly stolen by Adès from Argentinian singer Carlos Gardel). When it is presented whole, it is orchestrated viciously; as it subsides, it dissolves into pieces. The raw material and the character of the movements change—a crystalline waltz, a dangerous wedding march, a couple of arias for instruments—but the technique never rests. Notes are smeared and bent, melodic shrapnel abounds. Adès knows how to write for (and conduct) these forces: for all of the wild activity, one can hear multiple layers at once. The sheer density of audible activity is impressive. The effect over its nearly half-hour length feels simulteneously arousing and claustrophobic. Following so closely on the Ligeti, another work of generous incident, it was a little tiring. This may account for the lukewarm response from the audience; while this Suite hardly reaches the level of an ageless masterpiece, it deserves praise for its rigor, depth, and sheer orchestral color. The orchestra responded well to Adès’ direction (there were frequent smiles in the orchestra, an unusual occurrence), and produced a clear but burnished sound, plenty loud but never brash or oppressive.

Thanks to Harlow Robinson’s program note, I now know that Sergei Prokofiev and I have something in common: we both find Stravinsky’s Divertimento: Suite from “The Fairy’s Kiss” to be “dry and unengaging.” A combination of denatured Tchaikovsky and defanged Stravinsky, it may require someone more in tune with the Russian romantic’s stylistic tics to appreciate it. For me, Adès performance did not make a strong case for it. If this is your cup of tea, it did seem to work for some folks: the row in front of me regularly bobbed their heads in rhythm each time the bouncy, banal horn dance returned. Placed at the end of a long night at Symphony Hall (we did not emerge until just after 10:30), it may have induced the rush for the doors I observed afterward.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a difference a day makes: On Friday the Beethoven was a barnburner, exciting and droll, with
    sforzandi prominent, as Schuth describes. By contrast, the Powder paraphrase seemed anticlimactic, especially after the brilliant Ligeti.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 27, 2018 at 11:57 am

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